Working with an Architect

May 3, 2016


Many first time builders or remodelers are intimidated by the idea of working with an architect, not know what to expect in terms of fees and services, and unsure of their value.

In my practice, I seek to work collaboratively with clients to conceive and execute building projects that are aesthetically pleasing, functional, and which represent an exceptional value. This process breaks down into 6 basic phases:

1) Programming: This phase is used to develop a building "program" or list of spaces along with their square footages and any special requirements. This can be as simple as a 200 square foot bedroom addition to as complicated as a hospital with hundreds of highly specialized spaces and hundreds of thousands of square feet. Once square footages are determined a preliminary construction budget can be developed based on the size of the project, its complexity, and type of construction. The client must also retain the services of a civil engineer to survey the site, and a geotechnical engineer to assess soils and prepare a soils report, so that foundations can be properly engineered down the road. Programs are subject to change as the design process proceeds, construction cost estimates are firmed up, and the client's needs become more clear. Typically, the client is responsible for developing the program, often in consultation with an Architect, with the architect charging a professional services fee based on an hourly rate negotiated with the client. 


2) Schematic design: Once the program has been determined, the architect develops a series of design proposals that organize the program into a coherent, functional building, remodel or addition. The Architect researches planning and zoning codes, and prepares a preliminary building code analysis to insure code compliance. At this phase drawings are quite basic - usually just floor plans and perhaps a basic 3D computer model exploring design alternatives. Based on these investigations, a structural system is selected, and preliminary materials are chosen. This phase is also typically billed at an hourly rate, generally with an agreed upon "not to exceed"  clause in the Architect / Client contract to limit costs and keep the project on budget.

3) Design Development: Design development is where the architect refines the building design and integrates its components. In consultation with structural and mechanical engineers, the architect coordinates all of the building systems to avoid conflicts during construction. Most clients prefer to negotiate a fixed fee for this phase based on a clearly defined scope of work. This fee will vary depending on the complexity and size of the project. This phase is often rolled into the construction documents phase on smaller / simpler projects which dont require extensive integration and coordination of multiple disciplines like structural, electrical, mechanical, plumbing engineers.

3) Construction Documents and Permitting: This is the phase where the "Construction Contract Documents" often called "blueprints" by laypeople are developed. These documents consist of a detailed set of drawings and specifications which spell out exactly what the contractor must build, and its configuration, or design intent. It is extremely important that these be both accurate and comprehensive - any changes during construction will likely increase costs and delay the schedule with "change orders". At the start of this phase, the architect may meet with the building department to discuss any unresolved code issues. Towards the end of this phase the project will be submitted for plan check approval.

4) Bidding and Negotiations: Once the project has been approved by the local building department, the architect will assist the client in selecting contractors and soliciting bids. With private residential and commercial construction, at least contractors are invited to bid, and the bids are compared and the project generally awarded to the lowest bidder. This phase involves relatively little time on the part of the architect and is typically billed at an hourly rate.

5) Construction observation and administration: This phase is crucial to the successful completion of the project. Construction is a complex process, and questions and changes regularly arise. The contractor must be held to the construction contract to insure the client gets what they paid for. The architect is paid a professional services fee to insure that the project is built as specified in the contract, to issue clarifications if necessary, to review "shop drawings" submitted by the contractor, and to process requests for payment. The architect approves contractor requests for payment only after visiting the site and verifying the work has been done and that materials are on site for the construction being billed. Unscrupulous contractors sometimes demand payment for work they have not completed, or have completed improperly. Once paid, they have little incentive to complete the work, leading to costly and frustrating construction delays. A good architect is your watchdog during construction, and all communication between the contractor and client should be with the architect present to prevent problems, much the way you'd want your lawyer present during a complex contract negotiation. When the contractor is almost finished and the building is ready for occupancy, the architect requests a final inspection from the building department, and as long everything is in compliance with the permitted drawings, they issue a "certificate of occupancy" the client moves in, and the contractor finishes up and receives his their final payment.

The above services represent a typical full-service project, and can be broken out as individual services depending on the needs of the client


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Suite 2306
Redondo Beach, Los Angeles County 90277

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